Ghost 9
The Thought of Construction
Robert McCarter
(Ruth and Norman Moore Professor of Architecture, Washington University in St. Louis)

In a valiant attempt to deal with the multiple personalities that seem required to be an architect today—practitioner, published form-maker, and professor—the Nova Scotian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons has for a number of years led a kind of triple life. First, he has for some time now been recognized as one of Canada’s leading architects, and has recently received steadily increasing attention in national and international publications. Second, he has for a number of years served as a professor of architecture at Technical University Nova Scotia / Dalhousie University in Halifax. Third, over the last twenty-five years, in a critical regional practice par excellence, he has become what he calls the “village architect” for Kingsburg, a small cluster of farms whose roots can be traced back to one of the earliest European settlements in North America, first founded on the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia over 400 years ago by MacKay-Lyons’ French-Acadian ancestors. In his “village architect” practice, and in the closely-associated Ghost Laboratory, MacKay-Lyons has found the means to bring together his three lives, as well as engaging participants from around the world in annual two-week-long series of lessons-in-action which rejoin thinking and making in architecture—lessons in what the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn has called “the thought of construction.”

The Ghost Laboratory, as well as all of MacKay-Lyons’ work, is predicated on the belief that what really matters in architecture is not fashion and form, but rather is the tradition of building and the making of places. For MacKay-Lyons, architecture has everything to do with how its spaces are ordered to house the activities that take place within and between them; with how a building engages its place and the history of human occupation; with how a building is built, how it is structured, and of what materials it is made; and how all these affect what is experienced by those who inhabit it. In this, MacKay-Lyons is close to the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who held that what matters is not what a building looks like the day it opens, but what it is like to live in thirty years later.

The Construction of Experience

[We] should note that one of the strengths of the Ghost Laboratory is its numerous layered and overlapping agendas, among which are the correction of the bias towards thinking without making in architectural education; the evolution of a contemporary merger of the universal and local, the vernacular and modern; the re-engagement of the body in making and inhabiting; the re-integration of architecture and agriculture as two related ways of cultivating the land; re-establishing the importance of place—with its climate, landform, geology, sunlight, and its history of inhabitation, cultivation, and construction—in the making of architecture; and, most importantly, the integration of the thought of construction through the construction of experience, realized in the group’s shared act of designing and building. In this, “ethics and aesthetics are one in the same,” as stated by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Part of the real success of the Ghost Laboratory is the understanding one comes away with that, in the end, architecture lies in the realm of experienced things and their making, and not in the academy or the corporate practice, where words dictate to things. As the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson noted: “No answer in words can reply to a question of things.” The Ghost project has most to do with things that can only be made and learned by being there, indicating that if we are to learn anything of fundamental importance about the discipline of architecture, we must experience it in the flesh, as constructive lessons in the thinking and making which are inextricably bound together in the thought of construction.